All Commentary
Monday, November 1, 1999

Who’s Who in the School Voucher Movement

The Voucher Movement Is a Coalition with Incompatible Objectives


Watching the shifting line-ups in the school voucher contest is revealing. The voucher is one of those insidious “reforms” that its advocates herald as an achievable “step in the right direction.” The direction varies depending on who’s speaking. For some it’s improvement of the government’s monopoly schools through competition. For others, it’s elimination of the government’s role in education. That’s one problem with the voucher movement: it’s a coalition with incompatible objectives.

To date, the coalition has consisted mainly of conservatives, with a significant minority libertarian element. Many other libertarians, however, have warned that the voucher is a Venus flytrap. It looks pretty, but stay away.

It was only a matter of time before someone other than conservatives and libertarians became attracted to vouchers. Considering that key constituents of the Democratic Party, inner-city minority residents, poll in favor of vouchers, it was inevitable that leaders of that party would take an interest.

An editorial in the May/June New Democrat, published by the Democratic Leadership Council and Progressive Policy Institute (the “moderate” Democrats with whom Bill Clinton has long been associated), embraced vouchers in a new defense of government schools. These New Democrats are “gloomy” that the public response to vouchers and private scholarships has been so enthusiastic. Recent developments “should be a wake-up call to liberal Democrats who have blocked, watered down, or gummed up reforms such as charter schools and other types of public school choice,” the editorial states. Sensing that government schooling is in peril, it recommends that any voucher bill be amended to force private schools to admit all children and “meet or exceed specified performance standards to continue receiving taxpayer funds.”

Here’s the punch line: “Such an amendment would effectively turn voucher-supported private schools into public charter schools.” As the editorial correctly points out, “A public school is not defined by who ‘owns’ it, but rather by two features: universal access and accountability to the public for results.” The implicit third feature is tax financing.

The New Democrat anticipates that many voucher champions will object. “Fine,” it says. “Let’s separate the sheep from the goats on education: let’s find out who’s really interested in improving student achievement and who’s interested in simply gutting public education.” Education separationists understand that these two goals are not in conflict.

The question for voucherians who favor separation of school and state is: who is more likely to shape the voucher legislation that eventually gets enacted?

I am not the first to predict it, but I foresee a day when the voucher advocates and voucher opponents (excepting the libertarians) switch sides. It won’t be long.

* * *

With slightly more than a year to go before the start of the new millennium, it’s worthwhile to contemplate how much wealth human beings have created over the last one. Calvin Beisner takes an inventory.

The theory of spontaneous order holds that social cooperation and coordination occur without a central plan and with minimum force. Andrew Morriss has studied a particularly striking example—involving elementary schoolchildren.

Once upon a time American coins honored liberty not political leaders. The country’s founders insisted on it. That all changed. Stephan Gohmann teaches a revealing lesson.

The newspapers heralded the finding: Einstein’s brain was different? What does that mean? Steven Yates gives the gray matter some thought.

The U.S. Constitution contains terms that strike the modern ear as unfamiliar. The specific practices referred to may be passé, but as Wendy McElroy notes, the terms may not be as outmoded as one might think.

For classical liberals, welfare is bad, charity is good. Really? Daniel Oliver points out that it all depends on what the meaning of “charity” is.

The Clinton administration has plans to use the FBI to monitor all traffic on the Internet—for our own protection, of course. Prudent policy or another leech on liberty? Aeon Skoble e-mailed his conclusion.

Freud said that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. The Food and Drug Administration would have you believe that in light of its alleged effect on health, a cigar is actually a pack of cigarettes. Jacob Sullum scrutinizes the latest call for warning labels.

A quarter century ago many people believed the world’s supply of fossil fuels would run out. Considering that a gallon of milk (a “renewable resource”) costs more than a gallon of gasoline, that prediction seems flawed. It’s even more flawed than you think, says Robert Bradley, Jr.

Once again Big Steel wants help from Washington. How good is its case that foreign steelmakers are “dumping”? And is that a bad thing? Dale DeBoer has the unalloyed truth.

Western Germany, once the post-World War II economic dynamo, today looks like any other European welfare state. Norman Barry identifies the causes of decline.

Our columnists offer a smorgasbord of insights: Donald Boudreaux pounces on “predatory pricing.” Lawrence Reed examines the connection between the size of state governments and economic success. Doug Bandow analyzes post-Columbine gun policy. Dwight Lee continues his discussion of comparative advantage. Thomas Szasz dissects the metaphor of “mental illness.” Mark Skousen relates the story of a private bank in the world’s poorest country. Charles Baird takes the pulse of the AFL-CIO. And Roy Cordato, meditating on the claim that the “invisible hand” will be irrelevant in the 21st century, protests: “It Just Ain’t So!”

Reviewers this month assay books on a free education market, prospects for a civil society in China, political correctness on campus, the principles of a free society, the automobile, and Ulysses S. Grant.

—Sheldon Richman


  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.